God’s book of wisdom contrasts the life of the foolish man with the life of the wise man. It shows us how life works best in a fallen world. And talk is deeply important in recognizing which of those two paths we’re walking. Paul Tripp even argues that Proverbs is most fundamentally a treatise on talk. He summarizes Proverbs’ teaching on talk this way: “words give life; words bring death—you choose.” Every utterance that escapes our lips mat­ters, which means you’ve never spoken a neutral word in your life.

You’ve never spoken a neutral word in your life.

Our words are moving either in a direction of life or death. If our words are moving in a life direction, they will be words of encourage­ment, hope, love, peace, unity, instruction, wisdom, and correction. But the death direction brings forth words of anger, malice, slander, jealousy, gossip, division, contempt, racism, violence, judgment, and condemnation. We don’t give much thought to our talk in mundane times, yet that’s where we tend to get into trouble, and Proverbs instructs us well.

Killing Words

Proverbs 10 contrasts two kinds of talkers—the wise and the foolish:

The tongue of the righteous is choice silver; the heart of the wicked is of little worth. The lips of the righteous feed many. But fools die for lack of sense. (Prov. 10:20–21)

The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse. (Prov. 10:31–32)

Solomon cuts to the heart of what this book is arguing in Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

In America when police officers arrest a person, they caution him regard­ing his rights, including the Miranda warning, which begins, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” Words, when uttered by a person accused of committing a crime, can be a matter of life and death, at least when it comes to what could happen during the trial. Say something foolish, and life could become even more difficult for you. So it is in everyday life. Words have the potential to kill and to give life. We all know people (maybe even ourselves) who have been verbally abused by parents, spouses, even friends, to a point that the insults have become part of their identity and have ruined their lives.

Say something foolish, and life could become even more difficult for you.

In college I had a friend whose father had told him he was stupid for so many years he’d come to believe it and embraced it as central to his iden­tity. His father’s constant disapproval, usually shown through verbal jabs, led him to a life of drug and alcohol abuse before college. In a sense, his father’s words had killed him. Our words affect others, with the potential to destroy them.

Life-Giving Words

Words can also give life. Think of how en­couraging that Christian friend was to you when she told you how skilled you were in something you valued—maybe your singing voice, your teach­ing ability, your golf swing, how well your children read. Think about how your daughter smiled when you told her how proud you were that she had made the honor roll or all-star team.

Pastors have a special relationship to Monday. We often call it “Blue Monday,” because it’s the day we spend in recovery mode from the rigors of Sunday and that sermon we spent 15 hours preparing, only to see it fall as flat as the Kansas prairie. It’s the day that church member emails his pastor to complain about the music or the length of the sermon or how the youth group isn’t meeting his family’s needs.

I remember one particularly depressing Monday a couple of years ago when I was down and out over what church members had apparently re­garded (but didn’t notify me) as low attendance Sunday. I’d also learned our giving was way down, and one prominent family had announced to me that they were leaving because they didn’t like the elders’ vision. “Too much Bible,” they told me.

I opened my inbox that day, convinced I would only encounter additional ill news, but the first message to appear was from a relatively new member. His words were as humble as they were sweet. He was grateful for our church’s faithfulness, for the elders’ clear-headed vision, for our church’s friendliness. He loved that we valued the Bible enough to make it central to everything we do. The Monday blues were gone. In two short paragraphs, his words breathed new life into my week. I could look up at the mountain peak that was next Sunday with a smile. He had given me what Solomon describes in Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

Words kill and words give life—that’s what Solomon is saying. Remember that with every word you speak today.

Editors’ note: 

This article was adapted from Jeff Robinson’s book Taming the Tongue: How the Gospel Transforms Our Talk (TGC, 2021). On December 28–January 31, Taming the Tongue is 50 percent off in the TGC bookstore.